(Su)spending Time with Josh Ritter

Jessica Wille

One November long ago, a young man stumbles upon a sycamore tree. Hidden among its roots he finds the Bone of Song, a jawbone, and as he examines it he hears it speak: “I am the only unquiet ghost that does not seek rest.” Covering its smooth, bleached surface are words—lyrics—written throughout the centuries and immortalized on the bone. The man gently returns the Bone of Song to its place and goes on his way, but not before singing his own song, whose words float through the air before taking their place among the everlasting ballads.

Thus unfolds the legend sung by Josh Ritter in “Bone of Song”. Hailed as one of the next Great American Songwriters, Ritter, at 32, writes lyrics that sound as if they hold the wisdom and experience of someone one hundred times older. The more you listen to his music, the more you think he just has to be Doc Brown in disguise, come to pull you back and forth through the ages until you aren’t quite sure what year it is. Forget suspension of disbelief: With Josh Ritter, we have to talk about suspension of time.

This fair, lanky, curly-haired songwriter can melt the coldest of hearts with a smile that never seems to leave his lips. His show at Diesel at the end of last month was a classic performance, filled with plenty of excited jumping and exclamations (“This is the most fun any of us have ever had!”). The fervor he exudes in his live shows is contagious; within fifteen minutes he has his entire audience wearing identical, heart-melting grins. But it’s not just the personality behind the music that his fans are smiling about. Josh Ritter’s tunes are the kind you feel down to the bone, like the cold you feel with your first jump into water.

Like nearly every guitarist today, Ritter has cited the likes of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan as his inspiration to begin creating music. The difference is that, once at college at Oberlin, he traded in his neuroscience major for one of his own creation, American History through Narrative Folk Music. The result is a style of writing that sounds familiar from the moment you begin listening. Ritter draws on the folk tradition and countless historical characters to knit together his songs. You’ll hear references to Laurel and Hardy and the fall of Troy. The tales he tells take place on trains and ships, in missile silos hundreds of feet underground, and on silent movie sets; horses abound. His sharp-shooters and Casanovas may gallop into your consciousness from another world, but somehow they seem awfully recognizable.

Music Subheading

To date, Ritter has recorded five studio albums, the first of which (Josh Ritter) was self-released. Listening to the albums in succession is like walking through his own musical history. In his earliest material, Golden Age of Radio and Hello Starling, his instrumentation is simple. He plays guitar in all of them, and is usually accompanied by some combination of organ, guitar, mandolin, and drums. The songs supported by the organ, such as “Kathleen”, are especially exuberant and give the albums their momentum and drive. However, it’s the songs like “Come and Find Me” in Radio and “Wings” in Starling that are his true gems. These bare-boned songs showcase Ritter’s lyrical craftsmanship that allows him to describe intricate landscapes and ineffable emotions with just a handful of words.

In 2006, almost three years after Hello Starling, Ritter released The Animal Years, a bolder project than his previous ones. His sound is fuller and more varied, as if he had been deliberately expanding the world in which he wrote music. As a whole, the album carries much more weight than Radio or Starling, and many of the songs gravely confront topics like war and religion, “Girl in the War” being a prime example. That being said, there are still plenty of fun moments in The Animal Years. One favorite is “Good Man,” which can often be heard in the pleading requests called to Ritter during live performances. “You're not a good shot but I'm worse/And there's so much where we ain't been yet/So swing up on this little horse/The only thing we'll hit is sunset.”

Less than a year and a half after the release of The Animal Year he introduced another album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. As one might infer from the title, Ritter took a more easy-going approach on this collection of songs. He pulls out all the stops, plugs in the amp, and delivers a raucous, bursting-at-the-seams performance. In interviews for the release of the album, Ritter often cited his worry that the atmosphere surrounding his work was becoming too heavy and overbearing—this is his attempt to show a different side of himself. And it is a different side. Pounding piano, full orchestras, and heavy rhythms shape many of the tracks, most successfully in “To the Dogs or Whoever” and “Rumors”.

Despite his exploration of instrumentation and objectives, Josh Ritter plays the storyteller and ‘allusionist’ as much as ever, name-dropping Joan of Arc, Casey at the Bat, and Crimea—and that’s just one song. By far, Ritter’s fullest and most breathtaking story is “The Temptation of Adam.” It chronicles Adam and Marie, two strangers who meet in a missile silo on the eve of nuclear apocalypse. Adam realizes that the love they come to share could not survive in the same way above ground, and he struggles with his desire to launch the missile, end the world, and stay with Marie forever. The song floats on kitschy Cold War imagery (“I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the Bomb”) and nuclear references that divorce the narrative from reality and throw the singer into the shadows of containment and seclusion.

Of course, every musician has his or her faults. For Ritter, it is the tendency for some of his softer songs to sound alike. “Still Beating” on Historical Conquests and “You’ve Got the Moon” on Radio are either long-lost siblings or fraternal twins. It’s not that the tracks aren’t enjoyable, but Ritter shines the most when he’s showing us something new. Stepping outside of his box on his latter two albums has been the right move for Ritter; if he had come out with another Hello Starling, he may have faded into the chorus of talented but largely unremarkable singer/songwriters. Lucky for us.

Other Subheading

Josh Ritter hails from the town of Moscow, Idaho and went to school in Oberlin, Ohio before spending six months at the School of Scottish Folk Studies in, you guessed it, Scotland. His big break was having the opportunity to open for The Frames in Ireland, and it was the Irish audience that first embraced his work. Back here in the US, his distinctive sound is becoming increasingly acknowledged and celebrated. With so much moving around, it’s no surprise that Ritter’s music sounds the way it does. He is well-versed in the folk traditions of the United States and its English-speaking counterparts across the Atlantic. His own music melds together the old ballads of the UK and the scenery and history of the US and the result is something impressive.

Throughout his songs, Josh Ritter seems to be preoccupied with the feel and the sound of the West. This may in part be due to his own Western roots. It is also an ideal place to build the tension between tradition and modernity that challenges time. The arrival of the train is one image Ritter likes to use, like in “Harrisburg” when he sings “Some say that man is the root of all evil/Others say God's a drunkard for pain/Me I believe that the Garden of Eden/Was burned to make way for a train”. There is a feeling of sweeping, unbridled change that comes with these trains and collides with the mountains and valleys of the land Ritter is so adept at describing. The West, a region historically famous for this collision as well as the exploitation of its land and the supposed lawlessness of its people, is a place of freedom for Ritter to explore and bring to life.

If there’s one song critics point to in defense of the accolades they present to Ritter, it is “Thin Blue Flame”. Clocking in on The Animal Years at nearly ten minutes, it pulls together observations on religion, current events, and the essence of America into a poem with striking, enduring imagery. This is where Ritter stops time. As he jumps through space he watches suffering and pain in a world where religion is used to justify a call to arms and “beating hearts blossom into walking bombs”. He struggles to reconcile the promise of a Heaven with the terror waged on Earth until he suddenly realizes that the only refuge is finding heaven in the landscape and angels in the ones you love. “Only a full house is gonna make a home”: We make it together, or we don’t make it at all. This journey is captivating. Even though it was written in response to today’s concerns and disasters, it could fit neatly in nearly any time, any place, any problem. When you imagine “the raw smell of horses and the warm smell of hay [and] cicadas electric in the heat of the day,” you may not be sure exactly where or when you’re picturing. The important thing, though, is that you recognize it. It is this recognition—even of unfamiliar scenes—that gives Josh Ritter’s music a place in the past as well as in the present, leaving it suspended somewhere in between the two.

In an article with SovMag.com last year, Ritter described his desire for ageless songs, explaining, “I want my songs to last. I want to be able to sing these songs when I’m 70, and I want to feel like I still believe in them.” One of his strongest aspirations seems to be to create music that survives longer than he does. He wants his songs to be laid to rest on a jawbone. As the Bone of Song declares, “[It] care[s] not for wealth or fame/[It]’ll remember your song but [it]’ll forget your name.” With the unique sound Josh Ritter produces, it seems unlikely that he will be forgotten very soon. But even when he is, his music’s ability to recapture some curious, indistinct time will leave people listening, eyes blissfully closed, for ages.